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How We Could Prevent Massive Bee Deaths and Save Our Food

Despite scientific evidence indicting certain common pesticides, the EPA continues to allow their use.

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The new European report also reveals that Bayer attempted to influence public scientists working on this issue by threatening them with lawsuits or appealing to their superiors.

Even without definitive proof that imidacloprid was to blame for bee die-offs, France banned its use on sunflowers in 1999. Shortly thereafter, Bayer mounted a legal challenge to the ban. Other multinational seed producers like Monsanto and Pioneer weighed in on Bayer’s side. Bayer also sued representatives of beekeepers syndicates for “discrediting” their pesticide. Alas, Bayer lost every time.

By 2003, CST concluded that imidacloprid-treated corn and sunflower seed “poses significant risks for bees.” France’s ban only covered sunflowers (not corn), and the bees were still dying. The stated reason for banning it on only sunflowers was that corn does not make nectar. But corn produces pollen, and bees eat it. CST felt that corn pollen consumption by nurse bees and larvae was a possible explanation for continued bee troubles in France.

A major issue the European report addresses is the synergy between pesticides and diseases or parasites. Beekeepers on both sides of the Atlantic worry that even at sublethal doses, pesticides harm bees’ immune systems. With depressed immune systems, pathogens or parasites that might not otherwise kill bees now do. The report confirms that this is, in fact, the case.

The report concludes, “imidacloprid seems to be a substance particularly 'fit for the precautionary principle'.” It cites the chemicals’ ability to harm honeybees and wild bees at minute doses and its persistence in the soil for several years. Additionally, it notes that after Italy temporarily banned neonicotinoids in several crops, reports of high honeybee mortality decreased from 185 to two.

With Europe’s environmental agency thoroughly examining neonicotinoids’ role in bee die-offs and the European Commission recommending a ban on them, what is the US EPA doing? Allowing the use of a new, unregistered neonicotinoids called sulfoxaflor, and proposing a “conditional registration” for it. (Registration, in pesticide speak, means legalization. Conditional registration means, “Make money by selling it now, and perform the safety tests later.”)

Yup. That’s where we’re at. If you see a beekeeper who has literally torn his hair out, now you know why.

In addition to the role bees play in pollinating crops, they might also be a canary in the coal mine. Bees are more sensitive to environmental pollution than other insects, so – as the new European report puts it – “honeybee losses can be interpreted as an ‘alarm bell’ of harm to other entomofauna [bugs] and indirectly to plants, birds, and other species.”

Last week, the EPA held a Pollinator Summit, which it broadcast as a webinar. Presenters included pesticide makers Bayer and Syngenta, seed companies DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto, agricultural equipment manufacturers, and a corn farmer who spoke about the value of seed treatment with pesticides. A beekeeper spoke for 20 minutes.

The official presentation covered topics like how agribusiness plans to keep using neonicotinoids on seeds but reduce the amount of pesticide-contaminated dust spewed into the environment during planting. This is a nice step, of course, but the pesticide will still pulse through every cell in the plant, including the pollen. And it will enter the soil and remain there for years – except for the percent that seeps into the groundwater.

On the webinar’s online chat program, participants like beekeeper Tom Theobald spoke passionately about the government’s inadequate response to their problems. “We have had 265 minutes of corn planting, seed treatment, and mitigation, 20 minutes from a real working beekeeper, he wrote. “It is not the Environmental Mitigation Agency. Their responsibility is protection. They cannot continue to unleash dangerous chemicals on the environment and then come up with a bunch of shams they call mitigation. The beekeepers are out of time.”

 
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